Truly enabling environments entice children to learn and ensure they have no shortage of opportunities to do so, as Kirstine Beeley explains…
How best to set up your classroom to maximise children’s learning? It’s never straightforward. What areas should you create, what displays should you prepare, and how on earth do you fit everything into one tiny room?
It can be a challenge, but don’t despair – by thinking a little differently, it’s possible to plan your environment to ensure that learning becomes a part of the very fabric of your setting…
Children naturally need space to move, learn and think. It’s not a requirement that there be one table/chair for every child, and a rethink about what furniture you actually need can have a dramatic effect on how your room looks, feels and works.
Young children tend to gravitate to the floor to play, so make sure low-level learning spaces are available.
How many children do you actually ever want sitting at any one time? Can focused group input be on a carpet or outdoors?
By losing tables and chairs and making your room more open and free flowing, children will be able to access their learning and exploration more freely. Less is definitely more when it comes to working spaces in classrooms.
Now you’ve got more space to work with, you can look carefully at how your classroom is used. Does everything in the room serve a specific purpose when it comes to supporting learning?
Language and communication skills are the route by which children access every other area of learning, so encouraging their development must be a priority when planning your spaces.
Creating small, cosy areas where children can explore and talk freely without the pressure of adult intervention is vital in the early years.
Use canopies, arches and even the tables you no longer need to provide children with spots where they feel safe and secure enough to share their thoughts.
The key to igniting learning in young children is to grab their imaginations and tap into their natural curiosity. Providing invitations to play that draw children in and encourage them to ask questions and find answers will help to nurture higher-level thinking.
Try moving away from traditional display spaces and develop areas for investigation and exploration. Provide children with the tools to explore their own thinking with access to books, magazines and the internet alongside your ‘investigation stations’.
Encourage children to be ‘can’t keep away’ rather than ‘hands off’.
When setting up any classroom, remember how children learn: every time they explore something using their five senses, their developing brains fire and rewire, and connections are formed.
As such, providing lots of opportunities for sensory play and exploration has to be central to any setup.
Add textured objects and treasure baskets to explore, create different scented play-dough for sensory stimulation, and look for ways to add smell, texture, sound and even taste to your ongoing provision, for example, your sand and water trays.
Another factor to think about as you set up your classroom is the development of independence. Children who are independent are likely to be happier and more confident, and will access new experiences more readily.
How does your setting encourage independence past children putting on their own coats?
Are children able to self-register in the morning? Can they serve themselves snack? Are they able to choose what they create, play or build with? Are resources readily accessible and easy to move to where they want to play? Can they access the play-dough themselves, or even make their own play-dough?
Look to build in every opportunity you can for children to do things for themselves and make their own choices.
It’s important that we foster creativity in our children. In our everchanging and increasingly high-tech world, employers favour those who are able to think for themselves, explore their own ideas and think imaginatively about the world around them.
Thus the education we provide in our settings needs to encourage this creative process and critical thinking at every stage.
Moving from adult-planned and -directed art activities to a system where children design, create and explore making their own creations is an effective way to encourage diverse thinking.
Providing access to plenty of open-ended resources also encourages children to explore and create from their own imaginations at the same time as working cooperatively and problem-solving.
Moving away from traditional displays – ie where things are created to display – and instead ensuring that the process of learning is celebrated encourages you to focus on the importance of skills-based learning.
Adults will start to record and discuss the process a child goes through rather than simply praising the end product. Create your displays to show off the learning that’s going on across your classroom, rather than them becoming labour-intensive wall decorations.
Plan activities that help children to build their skills rather than something to show off at the end of the day.
For learning to have a real effect on children it has to be meaningful and linked into the children’s own world.
Letting the children take the lead on what they want to explore, learn and investigate not only ensures their full engagement, but also helps to link areas of the curriculum together into experiences that children will enjoy and remember.
Even in Year 1 (and even Year 6, come to think of it!) the full curriculum is accessible if your classroom is designed and set up with independent play-based learning in mind.
Please remember, outdoor learning is distinct from indoor learning – it’s not what you do indoors brought out through the door into the sunshine.
Make sure you embrace all that nature and the seasons have to offer, and step away from the laminator! When was the last time you saw a plastic sign in the middle of a woodland, or noticed a number line pinned to a fence in a field?
Follow Kirstine on Twitter at @Playingtolearn2.